The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whoa: Watch the PATRIOT Act’s author warn Congress might cancel the spying program

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner has never been an ardent civil libertarian. The Wisconsin Republican wrote the Patriot Act and spent a decade defending it against criticism from civil liberties groups.

But the government's creative re-interpretation of one provision, known as Section 215, to justify collection of every American's telephone records has turned Sensenbrenner into a critic of the national security establishment. Here he is earlier Wednesday at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, berating Deputy Attorney General James Cole on the government's interpretation of Section 215:

Section 215 requires the government to certify that its information requests are relevant to an ongoing terrorist investigation. But Sensenbrenner notes that the government claims that records of every phone call in America is relevant to a terrorism investigation. He asked: "Doesn't that make a mockery of the legal standard, because you're trying to have it both ways?"

Cole insisted the government wasn't trying to have it both ways. But Sensenbrenner wasn't satisfied.

"You sure are because you're saying have the court authorized to get the records of all the phone calls that are made to and from phones in the United States including people who have nothing to do with any kind of terrorist investigation.

"You gobble up all of those records and then you turn around and say well we'll pick out maybe 300 phone numbers out of the billions of records that you have every day and you store for five years there," he said.

"All the rest of this stuff is sitting in a warehouse and we found out from the IRS who knows who wants to have any kind of legal or illegal access to it. You are having it both ways."

"Section 215 expires at the end of 2015," Sensenbrenner warned Cole. "Unless you realize you've got a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew Section 215. You have to change how you operate Section 215, otherwise in two and a half years you're not going to have it any more."